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Colin Barker

In Marx’s workshop

(June 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 77, June 1985, p. 31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Making of Marx’s Critical Theory: A Bibliographical Analysis
Allen Oakley
Routledge & Kegan Paul £4.95

Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Intellectual Sources and Evolution. Vol. 2
Allen Oakley
Routledge & Regan Paul £16.95

FROM around 1844, Marx set himself a vast task which he never came near to completing. His aim was to produce a complete critical theoretical, account of the workings of capitalist society. His work was interrupted by the 1848 revolutions, by the demands of political activity, by ill-health, by the need to earn a living through journalism, by his defence of the Paris Commune. His progress went in fits and starts.

Sometimes he would put the work aside for several years. At other times, he ‘worked like mad’ at it. He was always overly optimistic (especially to publishers!) about bis progress. Quite apart from the inherent difficulty of his task, Marx faced huge problems of presentation. An enormous mass of material must be put into a proper order, presented as ‘an artistic whole’, and written in a way which would make it accessible to communist workers. In the end, when he died in 1883, only Volume I of Capital had actually been published. Marx twice worked over this, in an effort to make it more comprehensible.

His friend and comrade, Frederick Engels, spent the next decade labouring over the mass of manuscripts and notebooks Marx had left behind. From these he produced what we know today as Capital Vols. II and III.

In The Making of Marx’s Critical Theory, Allen Oakley has traced the complex development of Marx’s ideas, indicating in the process what an unfinished work Capital really is. Indeed, as he emphasises, we cannot be sure, finally, even what it is that is unfinished, for Marx kept changing his own mind about the scope and scale of his great project. There is a good case for seeing Capital, as we have it, as only a small fraction of Marx’s intended project.


As part of his immense labours, Marx produced, between 1861 and 1863, a huge manuscript in 23 notebooks (in total some 3,000 printed pages). Ten of these notebooks, together with extracts from five others, were published by Karl Kautsky as Capital Vol. IV. They have been re-edited in Moscow as the Theories of Surplus Value (TSV). These are the subject of the second volume of Oakley’s study of the development of Marx’s ideas.

As he shows, the TSV should not be read as Capital Vol. IV. They are not even the draft form of a work intended for publication. Rather, they are a huge set of extended notes Marx made for his own purposes. He had already, in the Grundrisse notebooks of the late 1850s, worked out the main basis of his own theory of the economic functioning of capitalist society.

What he was doing in the TSV notebooks was to clarify and develop his own theories, by confronting the ideas of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and others. Thus, the TSV are not Marx’s ‘history of political economy’, for Marx was reading the great (and not-so-great) political economists of previous generations with particular purposes in mind. He did not deal with all the relevant writers, nor with all the topics they raised.

He focussed chiefly on how they treated the question he himself had labelled the production of surplus value. Additionally, he was concerned with sorting put the contribution political economy had made to understanding the dynamics of capitalism – an aspect of the problem Marx had not previously taken very far.

Oakley focusses on this actual process of self-clarification, as it proceeds in Marx’s notebooks. He thus provides a fascinating insight into the labours going on within Marx’s own workshop.

Oakley’s books are models of scholarship. His exposition of the ideas both of Marx and of previous political economists is exceptionally clear. Taken together, these are a most useful addition to our understanding of the Marxist critique of political economy. Every half-decent library should be persuaded to buy them.

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Last updated: 16 October 2019